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 November 18, 2011

It’s a Hit, It’s a Hit – It’s a Biblical Hit

Much has been made – and rightly so – that Stephen Schwartz now has musicals ensconced in both theaters at 1633 Broadway. But the pair of shows may have something else in common.

The musical upstairs didn’t get, as we say in New England, wicked good reviews, but it’s turned out to be a wild audience pleaser. And while last week’s notices for Godspell were also less-than-stellar, I wouldn’t be surprised if this revival too becomes a popular hit. Last Wednesday evening, a full audience was full of joy and had the best possible time.

Memo to Andrew Martin, author of All for the Best: How Godspell Transferred from Stage to Screen: you may have to write a new book about the success of this production.

Memo to Solange de Santis, one of Ken Davenport’s many $1,000 investors who wrote me: I think you’re going to make money.

Granted, the theatergoers were jarred (as millions have been before them) by the “Tower of Babel” opening. It is arguably the most confusing one found in any musical -- even in the most notorious flops. If the original cast album had begun with “Tower of Babel,” many would have abandoned the recording before this cut had finished. That would have been tragic, for no one should miss this extraordinary score. Although Schwartz has written several strong ones, Godspell may still be his best.

Here director Daniel Goldstein tries to help “Tower of Babel” by having his cast members wear signs saying that they’re Sartre, Hegel, Galileo, L. Ron Hubbard and the like. Of course, in the round Circle in the Square, some theatergoers get to see and laugh at the signs before others can; only after the sign-wearers have turned 360 degrees can everyone get the joke.

Otherwise, the round is a very good setting for Godspell, and not just because the show needs no scenery. Many rock fans will feel right at home, because they’ve been in many arenas. Now, however, they’ll be closer than ever to the action.

Once “Tower of Babel” is over, Wallace Smith begins rescuing the show with “Prepare Ye.” The signs come off, and the cast members become – what? On a basic level, Godspell doesn’t make sense. When the real Jesus Christ came onto the scene, the people He encountered didn’t resemble in look or sound the crew we see here; for these people, “Dress Casual Friday” apparently occurs each day of the week. Is this the Second Coming of Jesus in 2011? No matter – whatever original conceiver John-Michael Tebelak had in mind, it’s a good enough vehicle for that aforementioned great score.

During “Save the People,” Goldstein has his cast open trap doors, revealing pools of water in which baptisms and immersions can occur. May I nit-pick? When the trap doors are finally closed, they should be shut in time to the music. That they’re slammed way off the beat is aurally distracting.

So is the stage business that happens afterward. Most everyone but Jesus is now suddenly very busy sweeping up the water that had been spilled on stage. They feverishly work their squeegees, mops and rags to finish in time for the next song so no one will slip, but all their busy activity pulls focus from the number. Maybe the trap door/water effect isn’t ultimately worth it.

Jesus occasionally uses a hand-held mic, which does make Him seem current, but also too slick. When He says “Make sure not to show your religion before friends,” He of course means not to display it ostentatiously. But one can also read into this line the irony that He is showing His religion before His friends.

All nine do seem to be His friends, because they go along with everything He says. How enthusiastically they re-enact each story He starts! (Well, some people do like to improv.) My, don’t these eccentric people get high on religion! Each time two of them hug each other, the rest of the cast goes “Awwwwwwww,” expressing an “Isn’t that sweet” emotion. Is the message that the early Christians were easily led and simple-minded?

If indeed Godspell is still supposed to be set in B.C. times, it certainly sports a peck of anachronisms. Wednesday’s audience adored every one. Many a theatergoer not only laughed at a time-warped reference, but also added that almost involuntary single hand-slap that says “I can’t get over how great that was!” This happens quite a bit, because Godspell contains more anachronisms than found in a Flintstones marathon on cable.

This is nothing new; Godspell has been used anachronisms from its first preview 40 years ago – albeit not the ones the 2011 audience hears. Many once-topical lines about Evel Knievel and Jennifer Cavalleri have been dropped, for they’d now be greeted in silence by many. The day will come when this production’s references to Lindsay Lohan and Heidi Klum will be keystroked into oblivion, too.

Many musical theater enthusiasts resent when they attend a vintage musical and find that it’s been heavily revised. They mourn that they’ll never see a Show Boat or an Anything Goes as it was done originally. They should add Godspell to the list, because chances are small that anyone will ever stage it with its original 1971 book. So many additions have been inserted into this production that I was reminded of that famous George S. Kaufman story: one night he dropped in on his musical Animal Crackers and found his stars, the Marx Brothers, ad-libbing extensively – even more than he’d seen them do in the previous weeks. Moments later, however, one of the Marxes said something that prompted Kaufman to remark with astonishment, “I think I heard one of my original lines.”

Every now and then, a longtime Godspell fan will think that he hears one of the original lines, too – mostly in the Biblical parables. But even one parable is delivered in rap, in order to wrap it in the here-and-now. Interestingly enough, once the rap is wrapped up, Jesus says, “And that is how My Heavenly Father will deal with you.” Does that literally mean that when we get to heaven we’ll hear rap? On the other hand, He could mean that when we get to hell, rap will greet us. (The latter would seem the more appropriate.)

All the new book insertions make for some longer longueurs before we get to the next song. By the second act, when someone comes out with, “Once upon a time there was a man,” many will say to themselves, “Oh-oh, this is going to be a long one.”

Still, both songs and stories are wonderfully done by a terrific cast. Some may complain that everyone’s a little too bright and eager, but the Story-Theater-ish Godspell has always invited such excesses. Shall we say that while orthodox Jews aren’t allowed to eat ham, actors portraying new Christians in Godspell are allowed to BE hams? Or shall we instead acknowledge that this cast of 10 is simply playing the show?

The excellent Nick Blaemire gets the show’s bounciest number, “We Beseech Thee,” and bounces along with it -- because the trap doors re-open to reveal that the pools of water have been replaced by trampolines.

I’d like to think that trampolines came into the show this way: one day Goldstein was rummaging around the bowels of 1633 Broadway and found in a spare room the trampolines that had been extensively used upstairs in the Uris Theatre in 1972 for Via Galactica. (That musical, set in outer space, had its cast bounce on trampolines to suggest weightlessness.) Once Goldstein found that these trampolines still had a lot of bounce in them – after all, they were only used for 15 previews and seven performances – he pressed them into service. (No? Perhaps you’re right.)

There’s Lindsay Mendez, who intoxicated me and many by her smile in Everyday Rapture. It’s put to good advantage here. In Sherie Rene Scott’s show, Mendez was a back-up singer, but here she gets her own solo. Bless the Lord, my soul! Her “Bless the Lord” is magnificent.

Celisse Henderson starts “Learn Your Lessons Well” with a ukulele, segues to two other stringed instruments from there, and upstages them all with her voice. Telly Leung’s soaring voice makes “All Good Gifts” a gift in itself. Uzo Aduba delivers the best “By My Side” that I’ve ever heard. The harmony on “Oh, God, you’re dead” is quite beautiful. And as for that God? Hunter Parrish has the charisma needed in a Jesus.

A new cast album will make those who’ve seen the reviews -- but haven’t seen the production -- wonder: how could anything so well-sung get such unenthusiastic notices?

Maybe we critics should have taken Jesus’ advice: “Judge not and you yourself will not be judged.” More to the point: when Jesus says, “Don’t worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself,” I think rabidly enthusiastic audiences will make that prediction come true.

Congrats, Solange de Santis. Go out right now and buy a new car.

                                                                                                                                                — Peter Filichia




You may e-mail Peter at Check out his weekly column each Tuesday at His book Broadway Musical MVPs 1960-2010: The Most Valuable Players of the Past 50 Seasons is now available at

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